Foundations: No.73 Autumn 2017

Martin Luther and Evangelical Mission: Father or Failure?

This article discusses the mission theology and practice of Martin Luther. The author demonstrates that the popular view which claims that the German Reformer was neither interested in the mission of the church, nor made any noteworthy contribution to mission theology, lacks substance. Luther’s critics seem to overlook the fact that Wit­tenberg, in which the Reformer lived, studied and taught, served as a hub of a huge missionary enterprise. Hundreds of preachers went out from this centre of the Reformation to spread the gospel all over Europe. Leading Scandinavian theologians, such as Olaus Petri and Hans Tausen, had all studied under Luther in Wittenberg and had been deeply influenced by him before they began reform work in their home countries. Furthermore, with his rediscovery of the gospel of justification by faith alone, his emphasis on the personal character of faith in Christ, his radical reinterpretation of the priesthood, his recognition of God’s author­ship of mission, his reminder that the witness to the gospel takes place in the midst of a spiritual battle, and his insistence that the Bible has to be available in common languages, Martin Luther laid down im­portant principles for the mission work of the church which are still valid today.

I. Introduction

The year 2017 commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In 1517 Martin Luther, a German monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, published his Ninety-Five Theses in which he criticised the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. On 31 October 1517 Luther sent the Theses to his bishop, Albrecht of Mainz.[1] This date is considered the beginning of the Reformation.[2] While Luther is widely praised for the rediscovery of the biblical gospel, he is strongly criticised for his views on mis­sion. There is a school of missiologists and church historians who argue that Luther was not interested in mission and, in fact, ignored the mission mandate which Christ had given to his Church. As a result, the German Reformer did not make any noteworthy contribution to mission theol­ogy, so the critics claim. This view is widespread and accepted by many as fact. However, a closer study of Luther shows that the critics miss both his influence on practical mis­sion work and his missiological contributions.

II. Luther and his critics

Martin Luther and his fellow Reformers have come under fire regarding their views on the role of mission. Key critics include both church historians and mission schol­ars. Among the former is the American historian William R. Hogg. In his book Ecumenical Foundations Hogg argues that within Western Protestant Christianity interest in mission work developed very slowly.[3] He goes on to say that the Protestant Reformers, among them Luther, “disavowed any obligation for Christians to carry the gospel beyond their fellow-countrymen”.[4] Hogg’s view is shared by Stephen Neill who served as a Professor of Missions and Ecumeni­cal Theology in the German University of Hamburg. In his well-known book A History of Christian Missions Neill argues that “[i]n the Protestant world, during the period of the Reformation, there was little time for thought of missions”.[5] He continues:

Naturally the Reformers were not unaware of the non-Christian world around them. Luther has many things, and sometimes surprisingly, kind things, to say about both Jews and Turks. It is clear that the idea of the steady progress of the preaching of the Gospel through the world is not foreign to his thought. Yet, when everything favourable has been said and can be said, and when all possible evidences from the writings of the Reformers have been collected, it all amounts to exceedingly little.[6]

Similarly, J. Herbert Kane, an evangelical scholar who taught at Trinity Evan­gelical Divinity School, criticises the churches of the Reformation for a lack of missionary enterprise. He comments: 

One would naturally expect that the spiritual forces released by the Reformation would have prompted the Protestant churches of Europe to take the gospel to the ends of the earth during the period of world exploration and colonisation which began about 1500. But such was not the case. The Roman Catholic Church between 1500 and 1700 won more converts in the pagan world than it lost to Protestantism in Europe.[7]

Kane goes on to identify deficiencies in the Reformers’ theologies as the main contributing factor.[8] He argues that they believed that the Great Commission had been achieved by the apostles by taking the good news to the ends of the world as it was known at that time. Consequently, there was no longer any need to send out missionaries to faraway countries. Kane also sees the Reformers’ views on predestination as a stumbling block.[9] Their “preoccupation” with the sovereignty of God, Kane believes, prevented them from promoting the spread of the gospel among pagan nations. Finally, he mentions the Reformers’ “apocalypticism”, with its negative view of the future, as a hindrance to global mission.[10] According to Kane, “Luther particularly took a dim view of the future.”[11]

Other scholars have suggested that Luther and the Reformers refused to consider mis­sion to be a proper theological subject and therefore showed a remarkable indifference to the missionary task of the church. In Eclipse in Mission: Dispelling the Shadow of our Idols Goodwin argues that the thought of the Protestant Reformers did not necessitate a separate theology of mission.[12] He continues:

Indeed, Calvin and Luther’s thought… would suggest that the absence of mission in their thinking was theological and not just an issue of oversight! It appears that they did not deem mission per se to even be a valid theological discipline or doctrine worth mentioning.[13]

In What in the World is God Doing? C. Gordon Olson speaks of the “Great Omission” of which Luther and his fellow Reformers were guilty.[14] The reason for their failure, Olson believes, was a spiritual one. The Reformation which they had started lacked deep spiritual roots. Olson goes on to explain what he means by that:

The Reformation was not a great revival in which tens of millions of people were born again. Probably there were only a minority of Protestants who really came to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. The rest were swept along with the tide. With the territorial church ar­rangement of Europe it was not hard to be a Protestant without being born again. It is important to understand that Luther did not spell out a clear doctrine of regeneration or new birth. Much reliance was placed upon baptism and communion, which were seen as “sacraments”… The more we learn about the spiritual state of the reformation churches, the more it seems like Christ’s words to the Sardis church in Revelation 3:1, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” Before there could be world evangelism, there had to be spiritual renewal. That was two centuries in coming.[15] 

Such criticism of Luther and the Reformers, which is shared by many other authors,[16] is anything but new. In his work Outline of a History of Protestant Missions from the Reformation to the Present Time published in 1901, German missiologist Gustav Warneck has laid, as Schulz writes, the foundation for the widespread criticism.[17] If Neill’s and Kane’s criticism is harsh, Warneck’s judgment, like that of Olson, is devas­tating. Thus, he states:

Notwithstanding the era of discovery in which the origin of the Protestant church fell, there was no missionary action on her part in the age of the Reformation… We miss in the Reformers not only missionary action, but even the idea of mission, in the sense in which we understand them today. And this is not only because the newly discovered heathen world across the sea lay almost wholly beyond the range of their vision, though that reason had some weight, but because fundamental theo­logical views hindered them from giving their activity, and even their thoughts, a missionary direction.[18]

In Warneck’s view Luther was clearly “not man of missionary spirit in the sense of seeking the Christianising of the heathen”.[19]

The question one has to ask is whether such criticism of Luther is justified. Was Luther really indifferent to mission? Is there really a lack of mission emphasis in his theology?

III. The flaws of the critics

Most of the critics of Luther and the Protestant Reformers like Neill, Kane, Olson or Warneck share a view of mission which emphasises its global dimension. Warneck, for example, defines mission as “the regular sending of messen­gers of the Gospel to non-Christian nations, with the view of Christianizing them”.[20] Olson’s definition has a similar thrust. “Mission”, he writes,

is the whole task, endeavour, and program of the Church of Jesus Christ to reach out across geographical and/or cultural boundaries by sending missionaries to evangelise people who have never heard or who have little opportunity to hear the saving gospel.[21]

If we understand mission first and foremost in such a way, i.e. as the enterprise of taking the gospel to places where there is no Christian presence, the charge against Luther might be justified. Luther, though he recognised the Turks’ need of salva­tion in Christ,[22] was not actively involved in the sending of missionaries to them or any other non-Christian nation. He only encouraged Christians who had become captives of the Turks to serve them “faithfully and diligently” so that they might “convert many, if they [the Turks] were to see that the Chris­tians are so superior to the Turks in humility, patience, diligence, faithful­ness, and similar virtues.”[23]

While on the surface, the charges against Luther seem to be warranted, a closer examination shows that they are, on various grounds, problematic.                                                                                   

1. Historical circumstances

First, the critics seem to ignore the fact that there are several valid reasons why Luther and the Protestant Reformers were not more focussed on world mission. The Reformers, as the word indicates, considered it their first task to reform the church, which was a time-consuming endeavour.[24] They were fully com­mitted “to establish and secure the principles of the Reformation in their own domain”.[25] Their regional churches were, as Bosch points out, “in­volved in a battle of sheer survival; only after the Peace of Westphalia (1648) were they able to organize themselves properly.”[26] The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), in particular, had devastated many Protestant countries in central and northern Europe and had made it very difficult for Protestants to have a normal church life.[27] As a result it was almost impossible to develop an overseas mission strategy.[28] Furthermore, in contrast to the Roman Catho­lic Church, located in countries like Italy, Portugal, and Spain which were maritime powers with colonies and trading connections outside Eu­rope, most Protestant churches in Germany did not have any direct links with overseas countries.[29] Unlike the Catholic rulers “none of the monarchs won over to the Reformation had”, as Zorn points out, “respon­sibilities in distant countries”.[30] This was also true for Frederick III and his brother Johann, who, as electors of Saxony, were among Luther’s strongest supporters.[31] Therefore, it would have been diffi­cult for Luther to pursue overseas mission work compared to Span­ish and Portuguese Roman Catholic monks who could rely on the support from their monarchs and willing navigators.[32] The rulers in the Protestant countries were, in general, solely interested in their own regional churches and indifferent to mission work in other lands.[33] Finally, as Kaariainen points out, Luther probably met less than twenty unbaptised people in his lifetime.[34] Consequently, he viewed Muslims, in step with the majority of Christians of his day, “primarily as ‘infidels’ and a political threat to the Holy Roman Empire, rather than as prospective converts to Christianity.”[35] Schulz concludes: “Thus the lack of missionary intent and enterprise is mostly a case of historical circumstance, which many scholars – who of­ten level scathing criticisms against the reformers – are loath to admit.”[36]

2. Missing the wider picture

Surprisingly, many of the critics seem to be unfamiliar with Luther’s theological works. They interpret some of his doctrinal positions with­out looking at the wider picture. Öberg writes:

Scholars such as Warneck and Latourette have often expressed an opinion without penetrating and objectively analyzing the primary sources: Luther’s exegesis of the Old and New Testaments, his many writings, and his sermons. Lack of familiarity with the original sources is the only way to explain the unfounded conclusions of such scholars. Assertions by Warneck and Bergman have led others scholars to their negative evaluations. The first built on loose sand. The second, in turn, have followed.[37]

However, if the wider picture is taken into account their allegation that Luther lacked missionary vision and zeal becomes less convincing.

(i) Luther and the doctrine of God’s sovereignty

According to R.A. James, the Reformers’ doctrine of God’s sovereignty “lessened the responsibility of humanity”.[38] However, a careful study of Luther’s writings shows us that Luther did not downplay the role Christians should play in spreading the gospel. Luther did not have any doubt that all responsibility for sal­vation from sin and eternal condemnation lay exclusively with God.[39] In his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed, which we can find in his Small Catechism, Luther famously states:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.[40]

At the same time Luther stresses that believers are totally responsible for the sphere of respon­sibility which God has given them.[41] This includes the area of evange­lism. In his commentary on Isaiah 40:9 Luther writes that “[e]very Christian is also an evangelist, who should teach another and publish the glory and praise of God”.[42] The church, he argues, has been “well informed and taught” and therefore is obliged “to proclaim and urge joyful tidings”.[43] Luther clearly distinguished between divine and human responsibilities. He strove, as Kolb puts it, “to hold God’s responsibility in tension with human responsibility to preserve the integrity of God as Creator and the integrity of the human creature as his special creation, fashioned in God’s image…”.[44]

(ii) Luther and the great commission    

Regarding the Reformers’ understanding of the Great Commission, Kane states that,

[t]hey taught that the Great Commission pertained only to the original apostles; that the apostles fulfilled the Great Commission by taking the gospel to the ends of the then known world; that if later generations were without the gospel, it was their own fault...[45]

Kane continues to say that it was part of the Reformers’ teaching that “the church in later stages had neither the authority nor the responsibility to send missionaries to the ends of the earth.”[46] This view is widespread and often repeated by contempo­rary authors.[47] Luther and Calvin are usually at the centre of their criticism. James, for example, puts it this way:

Martin Luther, John Calvin and many other early Reformers as­sumed that the apostles had completed the Great Commission, and the mes­sage had fallen on deaf ears… Their belief was that the church did not have the power or the responsibility to commission missionaries.[48]

Paul Avis speaks of “the strange silence” of the Protestant Reformers on mission.[49] He continues:

When both Luther and Calvin comment on the Great Commission (Matt. 28), they remain bafflingly silent on the duty of present-day Christians to carry on the work of the apostles in bringing the gospel to “every creature”.[50]

The fact that this charge against Luther and his fellow Reformers is often repeated in both popular and scholarly works does not necessarily mean that it is true. What is certainly true is that 17th century Lutheran orthodox theologi­ans revived the scholastic view that the Great Commission was no longer valid.[51] In 1652 this view was even expressed by the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg.[52] Luther, however, did not identify with this viewpoint. “Luther did not”, as Coates writes, “accept the interpretation of Ps. 19:5 and Rom. 10:18 as signifying that the apostles had literally pene­trated into every country and region of the earth”.[53] In a sermon preached in 1523, Luther said the following:

With this message or preaching, it is just as if one throws a stone into the water. It makes waves and circles or wheels around itself, and the waves roll always farther outward. One drives the other until they reach the shore. Although it is still in the middle, the waves do not rest; instead, the waves continue forward. So it is with the preaching. It is started through the apostles and always proceeds and is driven farther through the preacher to and fro in the world, driven out and persecuted; nevertheless, it is always being made more widely known to those that have never heard it before. As it travels, however, in the center, it may be extinguished and perverted by heresy. Or as it is said, if someone sends a message out, the message has been sent even though it has not arrived at the intended place or at a particular point, but is travelling en route, as when one says: “The emperor’s message has gone out,” though it has not yet arrived at Nuremberg or in Tukey where it now should go. This is how the preaching of the apostles should also be understood.[54]

At the same time it is only fair to say that the Great Commission of Matthew 28 did not play an important role as a missiological text in Luther’s thinking. Davis points out that there are forty-six citations of Matthew’s Great Commission passage in the collected works of Luther, but only once does Luther refer to the passage in a missiological context:

In a letter of October 2, 1539 to the Elector John Frederick Luther comments on the use of Matthew 28:19 by Martin Bucer to appeal to Luther to send Melanc[h]thon to England to help the cause of the Reformation there. Luther writes that this verse does not obligate him to send Melanc[h]thon, because he [Luther] is “Going into all the world… to preach” through his writings – and he also does not wish to leave the present work.[55]

Luther clearly did not read Matthew 28:16-20 missio­logically. He did not base the missionary task of the church on this passage. However, when we look at his interpretation of Luke’s version of the Great Commission, which is recorded in chapter 24, verses 45-49 of his Gospel, we see that Luther treats this passage as a missiological text. Luther com­ments:

According to this command all the Apostles have first judged and re­proved the world, and proclaimed God’s wrath against it; afterwards they preached forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name… As therefore the Apostles have preached according to the command of Christ, so too must we do, and say that all men are conceived and born in sin and are by nature children of wrath, and on this account condemned… With this however we do not cease, but we again encourage and comfort those whom we have rebuked, and say that Jesus has come into the world to save sinners, so that all who believe in him, should not perish, but receive everlasting life.[56]

Luther also saw the need to take the gospel to all nations. He recognised the importance of Christian believers going to those who had not heard of Christ and witnessing to them.[57] In a sermon on Mark, chapter 16, preached on Ascension Day 1523, Luther said the following about Jesus’ missionary commission to preach the gospel to all creation:

We have often said heretofore that the Gospel, properly speaking, is not something written in books, but an oral proclamation, which shall be heard in all the world and shall be cried out freely before all crea­tures, so that all would have to hear it if they had ears… For the Law, which was of old, and what the prophets preached, was not cried out in all the world before all creatures, but it was preached by the Jews in their synagogues. But the Gospel shall not be thus confined, it shall be preached freely unto all the world.[58]

Reflecting on the words of Psalm 117, verse 1 “Praise the LORD, all you nations”, Luther argues that the nations first need to hear God’s Word before they can praise him.[59] He then goes on to say: “If they are to hear His Word, the preachers must be sent to proclaim God’s Word to them.”[60]

(iii) Luther and the last day

Finally, the critics seem to misinterpret Luther’s eschatological views when they claim that those views kept him from being mission-minded. Like many of his contemporaries, Luther believed that the second coming of Christ was not far. It was first and foremost the developments in the secular business world, the sinful lifestyle of the people around him, and the general condition of the church which convinced Luther that judgment day had to be imminent. In a sermon on Luke 21:25-36 he said:

I do not wish to force anyone to believe as I do; neither will I permit anyone to deny me the right to believe that the last day is near at hand. These words and signs of Christ compel me to believe that such is the case. For the history of the centuries that have passed since the birth of Christ nowhere reveals conditions like those of the present. There has never been such building and planting in the world. There has never been such gluttonous and varied eating and drinking as now. Wearing apparel has reached its limit in costliness. Who has ever heard of such commerce as now encircles the earth? There have arisen all kinds of art and sculpture, embroidery and engraving, the like of which has not been seen during the whole Christian era… But not only have such great strides been made in the world of commerce, but also in the spiritual field have there been great changes. Error, sin, and falsehood never held sway in the world as in these last centuries. The Gospel has been openly condemned at Constance, and the false teachings of the Pope have been adopted as law…[61]

While these words of Luther very much express the pessimistic sentiment of his time, his assessment did not cause him to be afraid of the future.[62] In the same sermon Luther urges his audience to look forward to Christ’s second coming:

But to believers that day will be comforting and sweet. That day will be the highest joy and safety to the believer… Why should the believer fear and not rather exceedingly rejoice, since he trusts in Christ who comes as judge to redeem him and to be his everlasting portion.[63]

Luther’s eschatology neither made him to fear the future nor did it make him fatalistic. It certainly did not paralyse him, as some of his critics seem to suggest. On the contrary, the hope of heaven was a source of strength and comfort to him.[64] Luther took the earthly life very seriously. While he was looking forward to Christ’s return he was firmly grounded in the here and now. He was, as Strohl puts it, “[i]n no way… dismissive of life in this world”.[65] William Wright describes Luther’s attitude well when he writes that Luther emphasised “the need of humankind to act now in the present and not to worry about the future, which was God’s domain”.[66] Wright continues: “The concern with the present while leaving the future to God was a key to his teaching on vocation.”[67] Luther’s theology of vocation is indeed a good expression of his grounding in life. The German reformer “vehemently rejected the distinction made by the medieval church between spiritual vocations and worldly ones”.[68] He taught that every legitimate kind of work or function in society is a vocation or calling from God.[69] The purpose of a person’s calling is to serve others. In a sermon which he preached in the Castle Church at Weimar in 1522, Luther spells out what that means for Christian believers:

The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow him: therefore, I should also serve my neighbour, protect him and everything that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I might serve him. That would be a good prince and ruler. When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbour… The same is true for shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me to do so, so that I can make a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor. When a Christian does not serve the other, God is not present; that is not Christian living.[70] 

IV. Luther’s Wittenberg: a regional mission hub

In many varied ways, cities such as Wittenberg, Geneva, Zurich, Basel and Strasbourg, served as the regional mission hubs of the Reformation move­ment.[71] First, it was in these cities that the Reformers developed and taught their ideas. Secondly, it was in these centres that the Reformers produced their writings and had them printed.[72] In Wittenberg alone over 1,000 edi­tions of Luther’s works were printed between 1516 and 1546.[73] Thirdly, it was from these cities that not only merchants and traders but also itinerant evangelical preachers and pamphleteers, as well as former students of the Reformers, went out in all directions to spread the message of the Refor­mation.[74] 

What Geneva, Basel and Zurich were for the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland, southern Germany, the Netherlands and France, Wittenberg was for the Reformation in northern Germany, north-east Europe and Scandi­navia. Like the Swiss cities, Wittenberg served as a mission hub from which the rediscovered message of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, spread to many German territories and other parts of Europe. Cameron notes:

The process by which the reformers reached their hearers was just as important as that by which pamphlets reached their readers. Some re­formers were already established preachers in their community, and gravitated to the Reformation as they carried out their duties, through their own reading or contacts. Besides Luther himself, this occurred with Zwingli, Matthäus Zell, Wolfgang Capito, Berchthold Haller, Benz of Schwäbisch-Hall, Schappeler of Memmingen, and doubtless many others. Such preachers could carry their hearers with them on the basis of their existing reputation. Others travelled as students to a reformed centre, say, Wittenberg, Zurich, Strasbourg, or Geneva, and returned to their birthplace to spread the message among those they knew. Wittenberg siphoned an astonishing number of visiting students, through its schools, several of whom became prominent as reformers of their native districts.[75]

According to Öberg, Luther “had more than a theoretical vision for the Christianization of all peoples”.[76] However, he “showed a certain discontinuity or imbalance between his comprehensive mission vision and his sporadic suggestions for mission practice”.[77] While it is true that compared to Calvin and other Reformers,[78] Luther was less of a mission strategist, the training of theologians in Wittenberg for Germany and many parts of Europe certainly served a strategic purpose for him; and strategic this ministry was indeed. In Germany former students of Luther like Andreas Althamer, Anton Corvinus, and Martin Chemnitz, to name just a few, be­came catalysts of the Reformation.[79] In the Scandinavian kingdoms most of the leading Reformers had also studied under Luther[80] – among them were men like Olaus Pe­tri, Hans Tausen, and Mikael Agricola. Luther took a great interest in his students from northern Europe. When one of them struggled financially, it was Luther himself who appealed on the student’s behalf via a let­ter calling on the Danish king to fund his stud­ies in Wittenberg. Luther wrote:

Magister George Stur, a native of the principality of Schleswig, begged me to write you after receiving your Majesty’s promise of a stipendium, part of which money he has received, and pleads that your Majesty would graciously remember him and complete the matter.[81]

Similarly, after Mikael Agricola had finished his studies, Luther sent a letter of recommendation to King Gustav of Sweden asking the king for his support. This is what Luther wrote about the promising young theologian:

He was born in your Majesty’s dominions, and although young in years is very learned and sensible and of pleasing manners, and may achieve much good in your Majesty’s lands. I pray that Christ may have much fruit through this man, whom I hope your Majesty will appoint to an office.[82]

1. Luther and the reformation in Sweden

The history of Swedish Lutheranism began when Olaus Petri,[83] who had been born as the son of a blacksmith in the city of Örebro on 6 January 1493,[84] came to Germany in 1516.[85] From 1516 to 1518 he studied to­gether with his brother Laurentius under Martin Luther and Philipp Melanch­thon in Wittenberg. The two Swedish brothers were, as Heininen and Czaika write, strongly influenced by the teachings of the two German Reformers.[86] While in Wittenberg Olaus Petri heard Martin Luther lecture on Hebrews and Galatians and became a firsthand witness of the contro­versy over the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church through Johann Tetzel.[87] Kraal points out that during Olaus’ studies Luther completed three major works against the theology and practice of the Catholic Church: The Disputation against Scholastic Theology (1517), The Ninety-five Theses (1517), and the Heidelberg Disputation (1518).[88] When the Petri brothers returned to Sweden from Wittenberg in 1518, they were won for Luther’s ideas.[89] Back in their home country they preached against someone selling indulgences who had come into that country.[90]

Under the protection of the new Swedish king Gustav Vasa, Olaus Pe­tri and his brother began preaching against other Roman Catholic practices such as veneration of the saints and pilgrimages to healing shrines.[91] In 1524 Olaus Petri was appointed secretary of the Stockholm city council,[92] before publishing his book Useful Instruction two years later.[93] In the fol­lowing year he published Answers to Twelve Questions, in which he insisted that it was the church’s primary task to preach the pure gospel.[94] With the permission of the Swedish king, Olaus Petri’s treatises and books were dis­tributed throughout the kingdom.[95] Petri also contributed to the translation of the New Testament into Swedish.[96] Scott comments on Petri’s writing ministry and its influence:

He wrote profusely and with a remarkable persuasiveness; he had a knack for establishing intimate contact with his reader. For ten years he almost enjoyed a monopoly of the printing press that had been in­troduced in Stockholm in 1526, and he produced a flood of transla­tions and pamphlets (:128). In his reforming zeal Master Olof wanted to arouse debate on the whole question of church reform, but the pow­erful Bishop Brask refused. Nevertheless the eager young man found occasion to answer in print various objections of those who clung to Roman doctrines and practices.[97] 

2. Luther and reformation in Denmark

In 1523, five years after Petri had graduated, the Danish monk Hans Tausen came to Wittenberg to study under Luther. Tausen, who later became the fa­ther of the Danish Reformation, belonged to the order of Knights Hospital­lers at Antvorskov.[98] He had been trained at the three universities of Ros­tock, Copenhagen and Leuven. While in Wittenberg he was influenced by the ideas of the Protestant Reformation, causing concern to his superiors who subsequently called him back to Denmark in 1524. They feared that Tausen was aligning himself too closely to Luther. This fear was not unwar­ranted. Vind writes that “Tausen must have been immensely impressed by the proximity to Luther and his fellow theologians, since shortly after his return home, he began his evangelical preaching.”[99] Back in Antvorskov Tausen taught in a sermon on Maundy Thursday that people are saved through Christ alone.[100] This kind of preaching was not without conse­quence. On the one hand, it triggered persecution from the Catholic Church, but on the other hand, he gained the support of the people. Inspired by Tausen’s preaching there was a growing enthusiasm for the teachings of Lu­ther in Denmark.[101] Vind writes:

In 1525 he was sent away from the monastery in Antvorskov to the monastery of the Order of St John in Viborg, probably on account of irregular preaching. In Viborg he continued to preach, and presumably he became more and more critical of the existing church. We know that around 1526 he was expelled from his order. When the bishop sought to arrest him for heresy, he was defended by the citizens of Vi­borg, and they managed to get a letter of protection for him from King Frederik I.[102] 

Within a short period Tausen managed to establish the Reformation in Vi­borg.[103] In 1527 he had so many supporters in the city that the church, where he usually preached, could not hold all of them.      

In the years following Tausen translated the works of Luther from Ger­man into Danish and repeatedly called upon King Frederik I to introduce the Reformation in Denmark, appealing to his sense of duty as king.[104] This did not happen until 1537 under the rule of King Christian III.[105] There is no doubt however that Tausen played a crucial role in the Danish evangelical movement and its post-Reformation Lutheran Church.[106] Gideon and Hilda Hagstotz summarise Tausen’s role well when they write:

As a royal chaplain he drew immense crowds in Copenhagen. In 1530 he presented an independent confession of faith of forty-three articles, a counterpart of the Augsburg Confession. He stipulated the Bible alone as sufficient for salvation, the eucharist a commemoration of Christ’s death, the Holy Spirit the third person of the Godhead; and purgatory, monastic life, indulgences, mass, and celibacy of priests he declared contrary to Scripture. He was named one of the seven super­intendents of the realm; he shared in the construction of the ecclesias­tical constitution; and he served for nearly twenty years as bishop of Ribe, until he died.[107]

v. Luther and his missional theology

Some scholars, such as Scherer and Pitt, have conferred the title of “Father of Evangelical Missions” on Martin Luther,[108] thus directly contradicting the claims of the critics. While this title is probably too strong a term, it is true that Luther’s theology with its focus on the Word of God, the church, faith, and salvation contain important principles for mission.

1. Luther and the gospel of justification

Luther lived in a time when the message of the cross was no longer at the centre of the life of the church.[109] He lived in an age when people were told that they could obtain spiritual blessings, including the forgiveness of sins, by paying certain sums of money to the church.[110] However, through the study of the Scriptures the German Reformer came to realise that the true gospel was very different from that taught by the church. He realised that while the Bible teaches the condemnation of sinful people, it also teaches that sinners are offered free forgiveness through Christ.[111] Together with his fellow Reformers he rediscovered the biblical gospel of justification.[112] Luther describes the moment he made that discovery as follows:

 At last, God being merciful, as I meditated day and night on the connection of the words “the righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written: the righteous shall live by faith,” I began to understand that “righteousness of God” as that by which the righteous lives by the gift of God, namely by faith, and this sentence, “the righteousness of God is revealed,” to refer to a passive righteousness, by which the merciful God justifies us, as it is written, “The righteous lives by faith.” This immediately made me feel as though I had been born again, and as though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself. From that moment, the whole face of Scripture  appeared to me in a different light… And now, where I had once hated the phrase “the righteousness of God,” so much I began to love and extoll it as the sweetest of words, so that this passage in Paul became the very gate of paradise for me.[113]

Luther came to realise that people are justified by faith alone; that they can­not contribute anything to their salvation because on the cross Christ has al­ready achieved everything for them.[114] Luther understood that justifi­cation is a gracious act of God by which a believer is declared righteous.

Luther not only came to embrace the biblical gos­pel; he also emphasised the necessity to proclaim it. In his Large Cate­chism, Luther writes the following about the second petition in the Lord’s Prayer:

For the coming of God’s kingdom to us occurs in two ways; first, here in time through the Word and faith; and secondly, in eternity forever through revelation. Now we pray for both these things, that it may come to those who are not yet in it, and, by daily increase, to us who have received the same, and hereafter in eternal life. All this is nothing else than saying: Dear Father, we pray, give us first Thy Word, that the Gospel be preached properly throughout the world; and secondly, that it be received in faith, and work and live in us…[115]

Luther recognises that the gospel needs to be preached both to those who already belong to Christ through faith and to those who are not yet part of the kingdom.[116] We can see here as Schulz writes, “the missionary dimen­sion to Luther’s theology: God’s mission takes place within the Church, and yet it also extends beyond the Church to those still held in unbelief.”[117] Inter­estingly, Luther stresses that the gospel has to be proclaimed “through­out the world”. By using this phrase, he acknowledges the global aspect of evangelism. The gospel has to be proclaimed to all unbelievers whether they live close by or far away so that they can come to a personal faith in Christ.

For Luther, preaching certainly formed the heart of mission. The preaching of the gospel had, as Zorn notes, priority over other activities, such as church planting and diaconal work.[118] The reason for this was that “preaching the word built up the church, the latter being the consequence of the former and not the reverse.”[119] Consequently, one can only agree with Chung when he writes “that the Reformation teaching of justification has an urgent motive for mission.”[120]  

2. Luther and God’s mission

It is striking that Luther stresses the role that God plays in the missionary proclamation of the gospel. God himself is ultimately responsible for the preaching of the gospel. It is his will that all nations hear the gospel and it is God who invites people to receive salvation. Put dif­ferently, mission is first and foremost God’s mission or to use the com­mon technical term, missio Dei. Schulz notes: “God is the subject. Our activ­ity must subordinate itself to God’s doing, and any success is due to Him.”[121] Luther believed that whenever the Word of God is pro­claimed properly God’s voice can be heard.[122]  The voice and the words of the preacher, writes Luther, “are not his own words and doctrine but those of our Lord and God”.[123] This notion is based on his view of mis­sion.[124] To him the missionary proclamation of the gospel is an essen­tial part of God’s salvation plan. While salvation is achieved through Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection, it is distributed through the Word of God by the Holy Spirit.[125] Without this distribution through the preaching of the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit who applies the gospel to sinners no one would be saved. In his work Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Manner of Images and Sacraments Luther underlines the central role which the Word of God plays in the life of Christians:

Christ on the cross and all His suffering and His death do not avail, even if, as you teach, they are “acknowledged and meditated upon” with the utmost “passion, ardor, heartfeltness”. Something else must always be there. What is it? The Word, the Word. Listen, lying spirit, the Word avails. Even if Christ were given for us and crucified a thou­sand times, it would all be in vain if the Word of God were absent and were not distributed and given to me with the bidding, this is for you, take it, take what is yours. If I now seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it there. Nor must I hold to the suffering of Christ, as Carlstadt trifles, in knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either. But I will find in the sacraments or gospel, the Word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives me that forgiveness which was won on the cross.[126]    

Luther also recognises the central role the Holy Spirit plays in God’s mission. Commenting on the third article of the Apostle’s Creed Lu­ther writes the following in his Large Catechism:

I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with manifolds gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms. I am also a part and member of the same, a sharer and joint owner of all the goods it pos­sesses, brought to it and incorporated into it by the Holy Ghost by having heard and continuing to hear the Word of God, which is the beginning of entering it. For formerly, before we attained to this, we were altogether of the devil, knowing nothing of God and of Christ. Thus, until the last day, the Holy Ghost abides with the holy congre­gation or Christendom, by means of which He fetches us to Christ and which he employs to teach and preach to us the Word, causing it [this community] daily to grow and become strong in the faith.[127]

According to Luther, it is the Holy Spirit who works in and through the church. It is the Spirit of God who, through the church’s preaching, brings individuals to faith in Christ and into the church and thus sets them free from the influence of the devil. It is also God’s Spirit who, through the church’s preaching, strengthens the faith of believers and equips them to bear fruit. 

3. The lost nature of humankind

Like his fellow Reformers Luther saw human beings first and foremost from the perspective of their essential sinfulness and their inability to save them­selves.[128] He did not share Thomas Aquinas’ optimistic view regarding the ability of human reason. Instead, they emphasised the depravity and lost nature of humanity and their need of a saviour. “Luther’s starting point”, as Spencer notes “was the hopelessness and futility of the human situation: he accepted fundamentally Augustine’s doctrine of original sin and the de­pendence of humanity on God.”[129] Commenting on the Apostle’s Creed Luther deals with the fall and its consequences when he says:

For when we had been created by God the Father, and received from Him all manner of good, the devil came and led us into disobedience, sin, death, and all evil, so that we fell under his wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal damnation, as we had merited and deserved.[130]

Luther goes on to explain that only a compassionate and gracious God could save human beings from that fate. It is only through the work of Christ that they can enjoy the benefits of being reconciled to their creator:

There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God in His unfathomable goodness had compassion upon our mis­ery and wretchedness, and came from heaven to help us. Those tyrants and jailers, then, are expelled now, and in their place has come Jesus Christ, Lord of life, righteousness, very blessing, and salvation, and has delivered us poor lost men from the jaws of hell, has won us, made us free, and brought us again into the favour and grace of the Father, and has taken us as His own property under his shelter and protection, that He may govern us by His righteousness, wisdom, power, life and blessedness.[131]    

4. Luther and the church in mission

Luther clearly had a church-centred approach to mission. Luther emphasised “the overall mission (or gospel) orientation of the invisible Church – and of the individ­ual, visible congregation – as being an integral part of their nature and pur­pose.”[132] Consequently, there was no need for him to even think about any separate mission organisation that would work alongside the church.[133] For Luther it is the church which “serves as the cata­lyst and base for missionary outreach.”[134] It is the task of the church to preach the Word of God to both believers and unbelievers, to incorporate new believers through bap­tism into the church and to strengthen them through teaching and the celebra­tion of the Lord’s Supper in the faith.[135] All this happens on the lo­cal, congregational level.[136] Luther believed, as Kolb and Arand note “that God gathered his people into communities, into congregations gathered by and around his Word as it was proclaimed, read, and shared in its sacramen­tal form.”[137] This conviction stems from the Reformers’ understanding of the church. According to Luther, the marks of the church are two­fold: the Church of God is present wherever the gospel is faithfully preached and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are properly administered. Luther writes that, “anywhere you hear or see such a word preached, believed, confessed and acted upon, do not doubt that the true eccle­sia sancta catholica, a ‘holy Christian people’ must be there, even though there are very few of them.”[138] Luther did not like the idea of the church as an institution.[139] He rather saw it as the community or assembly of believers.[140]

While Luther has a high view of the ordained ministry,[141] he also insists that the whole people of God are called to be witnesses to God’s grace and salvation through Christ.[142] In several of his works Luther reaffirms the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. For Luther the priesthood of all believers means that through Christ every Christian has direct access to God and does not need any hu­man mediator between God and himself.[143] Luther strongly rejects the Roman Catholic doctrine and practice which gives both members of the clergy and the saints a mediating role. For Luther, to invoke the saints as me­diators “is substituting dumb idols for Christ”.[144] The only mediator Chris­tians as members of the spiritual priesthood need is the Son of God. Through him they can directly come before God the Father in prayer:

For Christ is our sole Mediator, and no one need expect to be heard unless he approach the Father in the name of that Mediator and con­fess him Lord given of God as intercessor for us and ruler of our bod­ies and souls. Prayer according to these conditions is approved. Strong faith, however, is necessary to lay hold of the comforting Word, pic­turing in our hearts as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.[145]

However, there is more to Luther’s view on the doctrine of the universal priesthood. As Alston points out, Luther did not understand the doctrine merely in individualistic terms:

Luther was no rugged individualist; he was an ardent advocate of Christian community. The truth of the matter is that even when Luther spoke of the priesthood of all believers, he was speaking of the one essential ministry of the whole church.[146]

Luther had no intention to abolish the priesthood, but to expand it.[147] In his treatise To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Luther states that all Christians are consecrated priests through their baptism.[148] Consequently,

there is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, between religious and secular, except for the sake of office and work, but not for the sake of status. They are all of the spiritual estate, all are truly priests, bishops, and popes. But they do not all have the same work to do.[149]

Though their individual work might differ, as members of God’s royal priesthood they all have the mandate to witness to Christ. In a sermon on John 21:19-24 Luther says that as priests all Christians can “teach all the world” about the faith.[150] The difference, however, between those Christians who hold a ministerial office and those who do not is that the former pro­claim the word on behalf of the entire Christian community while the latter do it in a private capacity.[151] “Parents evangelize their children. At work, relationships are formed with colleagues, who, in the course of friendship and common work, can be introduced to the Gospel of grace.”[152] In a ser­mon he preached on 1 Peter 2:9 in his Wittenberg church Luther reminds his congregants that they are all called to proclaim the blessings of God’s love in Christ.[153] Luther says:

Everything then should be directed in such a way that you recognize what God has done for you and you, thereafter, make it your highest priority to proclaim this publicly and call everyone to the light to which you are called. Where you see people that do not know this, you should instruct them and also teach them how you learned, that is, how a person through the good work and might of God is a saved and comes from darkness into light.[154]

In another sermon preached in 1522 Luther goes a step further. He stresses that it is Christ himself who gives believers the assurance that the gospel is indeed true. Christians who have been assured in such a way, Lu­ther argues, cannot but witness to the world that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the world’s only Saviour. He states:

That is, if he is in the heart he speaks through you, and assures and confirms you in the belief that the Gospel is true. Then, as a result, the confession of the Gospel springs forth. What then is the Gospel? It is a witness concerning Christ, that he is God’s Son, the Savior, and beside him there is no other. This is what Peter means when he says: “Ye are a royal priesthood, that we are elected thereto, that we preach and show forth the excellencies of Christ.” 1 Peter 2:9. Hence, there must always be witnessing.[155]

5. Luther and faith in Christ

In an age when people’s spiritual life was dominated by the observance of rituals, and the veneration of saints, as well as trust in the supernatural powers of the priests, Luther emphasised the personal char­acter of faith in Christ. As a matter of fact, it is a central aspect of his theology. Luther, as Shepherd puts it, insists “that faith – as contrasted with mere ‘belief’ – is the engagement of the Christian’s total person with the Person of Jesus Christ.”[156] For Luther faith consists of three components: The first two are knowledge of Christ and assent to who he is and what he has done.[157] However, for the German Reformer the third compo­nent is crucial: trust in Christ as one’s personal Lord and Saviour.[158] Such faith is established through the peaching of God’s word. In On Chris­tian Liberty first published in 1520 Luther writes:

Rather ought Christ to be preached to the end that faith in him may be established that he may not only be Christ, but be Christ for you and me, and that what his name denotes may be effectual in us. Such faith is produced and preserved in us by preaching why Christ came, what he brought and bestowed, and what benefit it is to us to accept him.[159]

In A Sermon on Three Kinds of Good Life Luther explains what the benefits of such saving faith in Christ are:

He who calls on Christ in faith, however, possesses his name, and the Holy Spirit most certainly comes to him. When the Spirit comes, how­ever, look, he makes a pure, free, cheerful, glad, and loving heart… This is the last thing on earth that any man can do… This is the road to heaven… Christ referred to this when he said in Mark, “He that be­lieves shall be saved.” Faith alone saves…[160]

Payton points out that for the Protestant Reformers faith in Christ which alone justifies is never alone: “[T]he faith that justifies cannot be solitary. It can­not exist by itself, in supposedly blissful isolation”.[161] For the Protestant Reformers genuine faith in Christ always leads to good works. Luther strongly holds that no one can earn his or her salvation by being a good person, but that does not mean that good works are not important. In A Treatise on Good Works Luther argues that good works are the litmus test of true faith,[162] and in The Freedom of a Christian he writes:

Nevertheless the works themselves do not justify him before God, but he does the works out of spontaneous love in obedience to God and considers nothing except the approval of God, whom he would most scrupulously obey in all things.[163]

For Luther good works are not a condition but a consequence or expression of salva­tion.[164] Forell notes: “Faith is never unethical faith. He who has faith will be sanctified and do good works. Justification and sanctification are for Luther two aspects of the same process and therefore mutually interdependent.”[165] For the German Reformer, good works and service in society are an integral part of the Christian life, even if they are risky. In Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague Luther says the following about the civic duties to­wards one’s neighbour:

If his house is on fire, love compels me to run to help him to extin­guish the flames. If there are enough other people around to put the fire out, I may either go home or remain to help. If he falls into the water or into a pit I dare not turn away but must hurry to help him as best I can. If there are others to do it, I am released. If I see that he is hungry or thirsty, I cannot ignore him but must offer food and drink, not considering whether I would risk impoverishing myself by doing so.[166]

Steinmetz summarises the heart of Luther’s ethics well when he says: “For Luther, the vertical relationship to God and the horizontal relationship to the neighbour are so inseparably joined in the act of faith that one is unthinka­ble without the other.”[167]

 

6. Luther and the spiritual battle in mission

Luther recognises that the evangelising church is involved in a spiritual battle, i.e. in a clash between God’s truths and God’s Church on the one side and the devil’s lies and his false church on the other side.[168] In his Large Cate­chism Luther prays “that through the Word and the power of the Holy Ghost Thy kingdom may prevail among us, and the kingdom of the devil be put down.”[169] The church in mission is always confronted with the devil and its powers. Mission is never “done in a neutral zone”.[170] Luther argues that Chris­tians must expect the devil to become active wherever God’s Word is pro­claimed and believed.[171] Commenting on the Lord’s Prayer in his Large Cate­chism Luther notes: “If we would be Christians, therefore, we must surely expect and reckon upon having the devil with all his angels and the world as our enemies who will bring every possible misfortune and grief upon us.”[172] Luther continues to give the reason for the battle which the devil wages on Christian believers: “For where the Word of God is preached, accepted, or believed, and produces fruit, there the holy cross cannot be wanting.”[173] To this explanation Luther adds a strong warning: “And let no one think that he shall have peace.”[174]

While Luther recognises the power of the devil, he also stresses that the weapons Christians in general, and Christian ministers in particular, have been given are stronger than all the weapons of the enemy. In the intro­duction to his Large Catechism Luther notes:

The devil is called the master of a thousand arts. But what shall we call God’s Word, which drives away and brings to naught this master of a thousand arts with all his arts and power? It must indeed be the master of more than a thousand arts. And shall we frivolously despise such power, profit, strength, and fruit – we, especially, who claim to be pastors and preachers?[175]

Besides God’s Word, Luther saw prayer as a powerful weapon against the devil and his schemes. Again in his Large Catechism Luther urges his readers to pray without ceasing:

[S]ince the devil with all his power, to­gether with the world and our own flesh, resists our endeavors, nothing is so necessary as that we should continually resort the ear of God, call upon Him, and pray to Him, that He would give, preserve, and increase in us faith… and that He would remove everything that is in our way and op­poses us therein.[176]

Christians, Luther believes, cannot win the spiritual bat­tle by their own strength.[177] They have to fight with the “Word of God and the prayer of faith”.[178] One can only agree with Rogers who argues that Luther’s “most significant contribution to contemporary understandings of prayer is his treatment of the devil and spiritual warfare.”[179]

7. Luther and the book of mission

“Throughout the history of the church”, Franklin and Niemandt note “Chris­tians have viewed the translation of the Bible into the languages of the world as an indispensable foundation for the sustainable mission of God.”[180] The translation of the Bible from the original languages into common European languages was also high on the Reformers’ agenda. They wanted God’s Word to be read and understood not only by priests and monks but by all people.[181] Thus, in 1521, while hiding in Wartburg Castle, Luther began to translate the New Testament from Greek into German.[182] A year later, in September 1522, the first edition with a total circulation of 3,000 copies was printed and distributed.[183] The entire German Bible, which was a “Wittenberg group endeavour”, was published in 1534.[184] McGoldrick notes:

During his stay at Wartburg, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German in eleven weeks! There had been earlier German versions, but they were dialectical renderings of only local usefulness. Luther’s mastery of language enabled him to produce a Bi­ble for all Germans, and in the process he became the father of Hoch­deutsch – High German – the national language.[185]

Luther continued to refine this Bible translation up to his death in 1546. He developed what Wills calls “a target-orientated conception of Bible trans­lation.”[186] Thus, one of the main principles he applied in his translation work was to watch the mouths of the people (or in German “dem Volk auf’s Maul schauen”).[187] Schulz explains: “Luther noted carefully people’s ways of expressing themselves as they pursued their daily chores and duties. This principle laid down by the Reformer has become an inspiration for all Protestant missionaries.”[188] Two years after Luther’s death his former student Mikael Agricola pub­lished his translation of the New Testament in Finnish, followed by parts of the Old Testament in 1551 and 1552.[189] Luther’s influence also shaped the Bible translations into the Danish language.[190] The first version of the Dan­ish New Testament was “awkwardly translated by Malmö’s former Mayor Hans Mikkelsen” in 1524.[191] A better translation by Christien Pedersen fol­lowed in 1529.[192] It is certainly not an exaggeration to say that the translation work of Luther and the other Reformers and their view of Scripture have had a strong influence on the Protestant mission endeavour in general and the Protestant Bible translation movement in particular.[193] Jongeneel notes:

Since then translation of Scripture from the original languages into vernacular languages and distribution of these translations among be­lievers have been essential characteristics of all Protestant mission work. The nineteenth-century creation of Bible societies to translate and distribute the Bible was a logical consequence of the Refor­mation’s doctrine of sola scriptura.[194]   

The reason why Luther desired the Bible to be accessi­ble to all Christians is founded upon his belief about the Bible’s authority. The medieval church held that there was more than one authoritative source of Christian theology.[195] In addition to Scripture, tradition and reason were considered to be important sources. Tradition has to be understood as “an active process of reflection by which theological and spiritual insights are valued, assessed, and transmitted from one generation to another.”[196] The Reformers were not opposed to tradition and reason as sources of theol­ogy.[197] They used their reason, accepted the early creeds of the church and valued the history of biblical interpretation.[198] However, they insisted that “the authority of the church, its leaders and its councils derived from Scrip­ture and was therefore subordinate to Scripture.”[199] One of the most out­spoken advocates of this view was Luther, who highly valued the creeds and confessions of the church. For Luther, Scripture alone was the ultimate authority, because both the pope and church councils could err but divine Scripture could not. Luther first expressed this view when he met for debate with Johannes von Eck in Leipzig in June/July 1519.[200] Mansch and Peters give the following account:

Eck insisted on an answer: was the Council of Constance… capable of error? Indeed it was, stated Luther. “That’s the plague!” said a shocked Duke George, who was sitting close by. But Luther was firm. Councils were made up of men, and were, like the pope himself, sub­ject to error. Christians were obligated to test the words and deeds of men by Holy Scripture. Scripture alone was perfect in its authority: Sola Scriptura, he called it.[201]

However, it was at the Diet of Worms in 1521 where Luther spoke the famous words regarding the authority of Scrip­ture:[202]   

Since then Your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scrip­ture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.[203]

For Luther the principle of Scripture alone is clearly Christo-centric.[204] Hasel notes: “For Luther, it seems, there is no sola Scriptura without a solus Christus. Scripture must be understood in favour of Christ, not against Him.”[205] Luther sees the Bible as the cradle which holds Christ. In his Pref­aces to the Books of the Bible he writes:

Therefore let your own thoughts and feelings go, and think of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines, which can never be worked out, so that you may find the wis­dom of God that He lays before you in such foolish and simple guise, in order that he may quench all pride. Here you will find the swad­dling-clothes and the manger in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds. Simple and little are the swaddling-clothes, but dear is the treasure, Christ, that lies in them.[206]

Sola Scriptura means that only Scripture carries absolute normative au­thority because it is only Scripture through which a true and full knowledge of God is available.

VI. Conclusion

We have seen that Luther’s Wittenberg played a central role as a re­gional mission hub for the Reformation movement in northern Europe. Luther himself saw the Refor­mation as a missionary movement, Wittenberg as its centre, and his fellow Reformers as missionaries.[207] In a letter to Melanchthon he even compared Wittenberg to Antioch and his colleagues to the apostle Paul and his co-work­ers: “You lecture, Amsdorf lectures; Jonas will lecture; do you want the kingdom of God to be proclaimed only in your town? Do not others need the gospel? Will your Antioch not release a Silas or a Paul or a Barnabas for some other work of the Spirit?”[208] Consequently, the allegations against Luther per­taining to a lack of missionary involvement are unjustified.

This same can be said about the accusation that Luther’s theology was not at all missional. The German Reformer for­mulates some important mission principles. Firstly, he leaves us with no doubt that mission is first of all God’s mission. Secondly, he emphasises that the gospel is the message of mission, which must be proclaimed both within and outside of the church. Thirdly, the desired response to such gos­pel proclamation is trust in Christ as Lord and Saviour. Fourthly, Luther stresses that mission is a church-based endeavour. It is local commu­nities of believers that the Holy Spirit uses to expand the universal Church until the return of Christ. Fifthly, Luther affirms that the evangelis­ing church is always involved in a clash between truth and untruth, i.e. be­tween the truths of God and the lies of the devil. Sixthly, he urges us to make the Bible – the ultimate authority for Christians in all mat­ters of faith and conduct – accessible to all believers in their own languages. Finally, in an age when mission has become a very broad and, at times, vague concept, Luther reminds us that the proclama­tion of the gospel of Jesus Christ forms the heart of what God is doing in and through His Church.

 

Next article >>   Back to contents page >>